Reversing the Tide of Extremism in Pakistan
Talk delivered at panel discussion on The Face of Blasphemy organised by Inter-Faith Society, University College of London (UCL), March 7, 2011.
The recent killing of Pakistan’s Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti points to a disturbing pattern in Pakistan, whereby extremist-terrorist groups while abusing the issue of blasphemy have taken the law into their hands and are on a killing spree. Their aim is to physically eliminate the high-profile political figures of the ruling party who had called for repealing or modifying the country’s blasphemy laws after Aasia Bibi’s conviction in November 2010. Governor of the Punjab province, Salman Taseer was the first to go. Other high profile political or civil society personalities may also be physically at risk for their role in preventing the misuse of blasphemy laws?

Unfortunately, each time a tragic instance such as the above takes place, Pakistan’s international standing suffers a huge blow. It fuels the negative perception about Pakistan in the outside world as a chaotic country. For instance, Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury in the UK, in an article on March 7 in The Times, compared Pakistan with Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, and Germany and its neighbours in the early 1930s, while terming the killing of Mr Bhatti as “the precursor of a breakdown of legal and political order and of long-term suffering for a whole population.”

The archbishop argued for a serious national debate in Pakistan over the excesses being committed against Christian minority in the name of blasphemy, even though the reality is that most of the victims of blasphemy laws happen to be Muslims themselves. However, the argument that Pakistanis seriously need to debate this issue is an apt one, especially if the country’s external image is treated as a criteria for judging what is good or bad for it.

Pakistan’s consistent fight against extremism and terrorism in the last few years had succeeded in securing several gains: terrorist organizations and their infrastructure in Swat, South Waziristan and other regions of the tribal belt were effectively targeted. For the first time in years, we saw the public opinion credibly shifting against Taliban and their terrorist tactics. Fatwas were issued by leading Islamic figures declaring suicide bombing as un-Islamic.

Since November 2010, however, the blasphemy issue seems to have overnight turned a promising situation upside down. The country’s majority Sunni population, the followers of Barelvi school of thought, has found itself in the same extremist category as the minority Deobandis, Wahhabis and the rest are—seriously questioning the widely held notion that extremism is a minority affair in Pakistan. Prior to November 2010 surge of blasphemy issue in the country, no one could ever imagine that the traditionally peaceful majority Sunni group would ever find a common cause with the minority extremist-terrorist groups.

The Barelvis are hated by Deobandis and Wahhabis for practicing ritualism in Islam, such as celebrating Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)’s birthday with pomp and glory. Their extremism has purely religious roots, unlike the minority Deobandis and Wahhabis whose extremism and terrorism is driven largely by political causes. Thus, if Barelvis' sensitivities on the issue of blasphemy are somehow pragmatically addreessed, they can be dissuaded from violence.

What has essentially gone wrong is the manner in which late Taseer tried to handle the Aasia Bibi issue. If we look at the history of convictions in Pakistan under the blasphemy laws, most of them were overturned in higher courts. Given that, however noble were former Governor Punjab’s intentions, he may have acted prematurely on Aasia Bibi’s case while an appeal against her conviction was stilling pending in a higher court. In a way, therefore, the liberal Westernised elites of the country, constituting only a tiny part of its civil society, end up doing more harm to a liberal cause than even the damage one can naturally expect from the religious right in general and the extremists in particular.

What has happened, in essence, since last November is that an issue over which extremist-terrorist groups can galvanize mass support from the Sunni constituency has been handed over to them on a platter by the supposedly “bold” figures in the government—and there is no respite since then in terrorist assassination of leading political figures. Not just that, the little window of opportunity we have had for bringing about at least some procedural changes in the application of blasphemy laws, so as to prevent their misuse against religious minorities as well as fellow Muslims, is gone.

What the parliamentary bill introduced by PPP leader Sherry Rehman intended was not to repeal the blasphemy laws, whose most controversial sections, including 295-C in particular, were introduced by the Ziaul Haq regime as part of its regressive Islamisation programme. The bill, for instance, had called for the reporting of blasphemy cases to a higher police official instead of an SHO at a police station and their hearing only by higher courts rather than lower courts. This was perfectly understandable, given the sensitivity of the subject involved as well as the history of its exploitation in the name of religion.

However, the moment Aasia Bibi’s case entered the political domain, the proposed parliamentary bill was history, and pattern of high political assassination became in vogue. Now, if the organizational identities on leaflets found at the most recent murder site in Islamabad are true, then Punjabi Taliban and al-Qaeda have resumed what they were denied by the country’s security forces in the last few years: the freedom of action to carry out their terrorist campaign. This is because a volatile issue such as blasphemy gives them an enormous ability to justify violence in the name of religion.

As for a host of Barelvi organizations, including the most vocal Sunni Tehrik in Karachi, in their respective conduct on the issue of blasphemy, there may be an attempt to create a political niche for themselves in the country. The issue may have provided them an opportunity to assert politically to the extent that in any future wheeling dealing, the state or the government should take them as much seriously as it does in relation to, say, the JUI of Maulana Fazlur Rehman or Jamaat-e-Islami.

The religious right is politicising an issue that lies specifically within the realm of religion. It is very sad that politics is being played over what is essentially a non-issue, and, that also, in a country mired in deep poverty, rampant unemployment, and unprecedented price-hike. The current trend in Pakistan is, thus, in stark contrast to the winds of change presently visible in the Arab street. This is despite the fact that Pakistan has traditionally been far ahead of its Arabian Muslim counterparts in terms of the national penchant for greater democracy, justice and freedom.

Given all of the above, the foremost challenge before the state and government leadership in the months ahead is to take meaningful steps and visible actions meant to deny further space to the active and passive followers and supporters of extremism in Pakistan. The state and the government of Pakistan must urgently adopt and implement both resolute and pragmatic measures to snatch the initiative from the extremists. The need of the hour is to go back to the pre-November 2010 era, so as to regain consistency in the state security forces-led campaign to eliminate extremism and terrorism from the country.

It is clear that the very extremist forces who had opposed Pakistan’s creation are now hell bent upon hijacking its founding progressive legacy. It was not for them or their extremist cause that Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a diehard constitutionalist, had demanded and founded a separate homeland. The country was no doubt founded for Muslims but with the due respect and privileges for all the minorities. Even otherwise, Islam is a religion where considerations of peace and tolerance for the unprivileged are issues of priority. On the eve of Pakistan’s founding, Jinnah had professed the secular, progressive ideals of religious tolerance, respect for minorities and a democratic future for the country.

The government has thus far acted wisely by showing a cautious attitude and following a restrained policy on the issue of blasphemy. The governing civilian leadership—which has a long history of public commitment to preserve Pakistan’s founding ideals of democratic system, free information and minority rights—must continue to behave pragmatically on the issue. It must reach out to mainstream Barelvi organizations. If they are convinced that the cost of their alliance with the Deobandis will be greater than that of reaching a compromise with the government, then a via media can be found on the issue of blasphemy: such as settling down on inserting the word ‘maliciously’ or ‘deliberately’ or ‘intentionally’ in Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code –so that the burden of proof, which is now on the defence/accused, is shifted to the prosecution/accuser.

While undertaking the bold steps and pragmatic moves, as mentioned before, the state and the government leadership must continue to show consistency in the country’s counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency campaign that we have seen since the start of 2009. One encouraging outcome of that campaign—and, in fact, a response to recurrent terrorist tragedies in the country in the recent past—was that majority Pakistanis turned against the extremists.

So much so that the Muttahedda Ulema Council—an alliance of largely Deobandi organizations under the leadership of Maulana Sarfraz Naeemi—had the courage to declare suicide bombings as najaiz and haram in Islam in November 2008. In June 2009, Maulana Naeemi was killed by a suicide bomber, a killing claimed by TTP. Since then, there have been many such fatwas, including one by Maulana Tahirul Qadri and another by a gathering of Karachi-based Ulemas early last year.

In retrospect, therefore, on the issue of blasphemy, the widespread expression of extremism may have sketched a depressing scenario for Pakistan. Still there are credible fissures within the extremist flock that those ruling the country can pragmatically exploit. There does exist the possibility for an indigenous mass response to extremism by the very majority populace which recently turned against Taliban. And there is every reason why the state and the government should not build upon past successes against extremist-terrorist forces and not undertake even bolder steps for defeating them.